Resistance is Futile

The ultimate 'Hive Mind'

Borgs: the ultimate ‘Hive Mind’

The Hive Mind, the idea that an entire colony operates like a single organism with one mind, is a notion that’s been picked up by people who don’t usually wear bee veils. Some of these folks are screenplay writers while others are economists.

On the TV tube, the mechanistic intergalactic Borg assimilated every culture they encountered, giving rise to their mantra “Resistance is Futile” – it was inevitable that the single-brained society of interconnected creatures which had been absorbed into the Borg super-colony would all eventual succumb to the super-being. Almost everyone encountered gave up their identity and become part of the greater good. Not that the Borg were portrayed as good on Star Trek. They were menacing and their chief claim to badness was that they ingested everyone else. Since words like colony, queen,  and hive mind were tossed around, the Borg gave bees a bad name.

Does a honey bee colony have a Hive Mind or does it have a leader? The colony seem to have something like a collective mind, but we still don’t know what causes it to act as a community when there is no leader or decision maker. Similarly, we don’t know why birds flock, fish school, sheep herd, or crows murder.  When a worker honey bee begins to build comb, it is an almost accidental incident. A flake of wax appears on her abdomen. She has to stick it somewhere. Another bee attaches a second piece, then another and another. When the second and third piece are fixed onto the first, it’s unlikely that the bees have an image in their mind about the final structure of the new wax comb. The image is not in any individual worker’s mind, but it does seem to exist in the collective hive’s mind, perhaps as an evolutionary habit, passed along in the bees’ DNA.

a hanging swarmA similar thing happens when bees decide to swarm. There are lots of physical inputs. Days are getting longer. The colony population is growing. Less and less of the queen’s limited swarm-suppression pheromone is distributed among more and more bees. Swarming occurs during nectar flows – all available space is filled with honey, contributing to crowding and congestion. There are few places left for the queen to lay eggs. Her body shrinks from her egg-laying hiatus, allowing her to fly with a future swarm. Scout bees return to share their discovery of a hollow tree as a future possible home. A lot of natural triggers work simultaneously.  Then, a brief spell of rainy weather keeps the bees stuck in their hive for a day or two. Finally, the sun comes out, it’s hot, humid, and flowers are dripping with nectar. The colony swarms.

Half the bees leave with their lighter, stream-lined queen. Scouts direct them to their new home. Which bees stay and which leave? It doesn’t seem to matter to the bees, except the queen has to be among the ones fleeing.  Researchers have marked bees in a swarm, then returned them all to their original hive. A few hours later, they swarm again. About half the bees stay the second time, replaced by sister bees who make up the new swarm. Each individual bee seems to decide to go or stay. Neither too many nor too few exit with the swarm. The big decision is made by the hive’s mind, not the individual bees’ minds. For all we know, the ones which leave are the ones which are nearest the hive’s door when the swarming starts. It may be that simple.

Wadey CraftsmanI first saw the phrase ‘hive mind’ years ago. It appeared in the 1943 book, The Bee Craftsman, by Herbert Wadey. The author was editor of a worthy British journal called Bee Craft. In his slim (116 page) book, Wadey asks, “What controls, guides, determines, the varying policy of the bee colony? Not the queen or a dictator; not a committee of elders.” Rather, Wade noted, “the bee colony has a collective mind….which determines the needs and which works out the way to satisfy them…often in less time than a human mind would need.” Throughout The Bee Craftsman, Wadey explains the organization of the colony in terms of the hive mind, telling us that “the Hive Mind is a strange and mysterious collective mentality.”

This idea comes back again and again. Books like The Mind of the Bees (L’Esprit des Abeilles, by Julien Francon) and Wisdom of the Hive (Tom Seeley, 1996), demonstrate how the collective acumen of the members of the colony makes decisions without designated decision makers. In the past, this approach has expanded to include other fields of study, notably economics.

bee socksEconomists have long described similarities between honey bees and human activities. There is “an invisible hand” in the market place assuring enough shoes, socks, and karaoke machines are manufactured each year. And these things are sold at a price largely determined by collective free-market bidding among all the people interested in foot apparel or in bar tab receipts. As with the bee making comb in her hive, our improvised choices contribute to the operation of a larger society.

In his book, Hive Mind: How your nation’s IQ matters more than your own, Garett Jones tells us that the joint efforts of humans are similar to the efforts of bees. “Millions of small cognitive contributions…create each nation’s collective intelligence, each nation’s hive mind.” Jones explains how – by simply being part of a successful nation’s hive mind – we can be successful ourselves, even if rocket science isn’t our long suit. If you are fortunate enough to reside in a rich, creative country, you might still be comfortable, even if you have a habit of poor personal choices.

Looking at a bee hive again, every colony member (even the least able) benefits from the level of the colony’s collective health and prosperity – and suffers when things go poorly. If a colony starves because the hive runs out of honey, all the bees die on the same day. There is neither hoarding nor selfish gorging. Members share equally until the food runs out. The ultimate hive mind.

Being part of a colony’s hive mind is not a conscious choice for any individual  honey bee. The bee simply obeys physiological rules governing her behaviour within the colony. Free will and choice do not exist for the bee. Resistance to cooperation – futile or otherwise –  is not even an option for members of a colony.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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